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Tags? We're it. NIST opens new 'biolabeling' research facility

With the recent opening of its new Biomolecular Labeling Laboratory, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has become one of a small handful of facilities in the world that specializes in tagging large molecules with different isotopes to make them easier to analyze. The new NIST lab is available to outside researchers, particularly those in biomedical fields who also want to take advantage of the NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR)'s analysis tools.

The "BL-squared" lab, a collaboration between NIST and the University of Maryland, should interest drug manufacturers, who need details about the structure and behavior of protein molecules that could become new medicines. Scientists prefer to make a novel molecule stand out from its background so they can spot it more easily with certain lab techniques, such as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), small angle neutron scattering (SANS) and mass spectrometry.

Isotope tagging is a particularly effective way to enhance a molecule's visibility. Some of its common atoms -- hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen, for example -- are exchanged for heavier versions of themselves. These rare stable isotopes -- deuterium, carbon-13 and nitrogen-15 -- are not radioactive, but their different atomic mass makes the "labeled" molecule more visible during SANS, NMR or other types of measurements.

While biolabeling can be done on an ad hoc basis in any lab, NIST's Zvi Kelman says that the new lab will bring greater efficiency to the process.

"Now NIST will have the ability to produce and label biomolecules with different patterns and levels of isotopes," says Kelman, who recently moved from the University of Maryland to NIST's Biochemical Science Division. "Our facility is an open collaboration, so once we learn something about marking one biomolecule, we can then turn around and apply that knowledge to other users' projects."

Up to five clients, or "users," will have room to work simultaneously in the lab, while its close proximity to the NCNR means that users can take advantage of the NCNR's many neutron-based scanning methods as well. The lab will be able to accommodate about 50 to 60 users per year, according to Kelman, and it will be unusual in that there will be no requirement that users analyze their newly labeled molecules at NIST.

Contact: Chad Boutin
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

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